The Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers had the most precious of opportunities: to achieve something that is normally very difficult by making a pact to do nothing. Instead, they were both committed to doing the absolute most possible. What followed was one of the strangest games in the NFL’s modern history.
Early last week, after the penultimate slate of regular-season games, people noticed something peculiar in the league’s Week 18 playoff-clinching scenarios. The Raiders and Chargers were due to play the last game of the season on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. And in the unlikely event that the Indianapolis Colts lost to the worst team in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars, both AFC West teams would have two simple paths to the postseason. One was to win, eliminating their opponent from the wild-card race. The other was to tie, putting both the Raiders and Chargers in the field at 9–7–1. The only team that could tie them with that record was the Pittsburgh Steelers, and both of the West teams had head-to-head tiebreakers over the Steelers. If they tied, then, they’d both play deeper into January.
Would the teams conspire to fix the game? This was not merely a question for conspiracy-starved message-board posters. The proposition was straightforward enough that the Wall Street Journal wrote it up under the headline “How an NFL Game Became a Prisoner’s Dilemma” and interviewed economists about the game theory confronting the teams.
As Sunday unfolded, the plan began to fall into place. Carson Wentz and the Colts soiled themselves in Jacksonville, losing 26–11 to knock themselves out of contention. The Steelers, behind a barely yet shockingly functional Ben Roethlisberger, beat the Baltimore Ravens in overtime. That further incentivized the tie scenario, as the Raiders would have already clinched a playoff spot going into Sunday night had the Colts and Steelers both lost. The Chargers always needed to win or tie on Sunday night, and the combination of a Colts loss and Steelers win meant a tie would suit the Raiders brilliantly, too.
So, before kickoff, the ducks were in a row for an NFL version of the “Disgrace of Gijón,” the 1982 World Cup match in which West Germany and Austria played for a one-goal West German victory that allowed both sides to advance out of the group stage. Neither team was officially sanctioned, but both were, well, disgraced. The game also prompted FIFA to align starting times in such a way to make collusion more difficult.
The NFL, for its part, does not have a specific rule against two teams colluding to produce a mutually desired result. And so, here we were on Sunday night, with the NFL having flexed the Raiders-Chargers into the last game of the season. Fate was practically egging them on to create their own despicable game in Vegas, the Disgrace of Céline Dion.
Alas, once they took the field, the dream of a tie game looked distant. The Raiders had a second-half lead of 12 points, making overtime mathematically unlikely even if the Chargers came back. Then it became 15 points, requiring two Chargers touchdowns and a two-point conversion to force OT. But the Chargers hung around, and in a slow drip that felt (but was not) engineered to excruciate Steelers fans, they tied things up at 29 on a preposterous 19-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that took 2:06 and ended with a touchdown pass as time expired.
Now, again, events had conspired to create a disgraceful scenario. All the Raiders and Chargers had to do was not outscore each other for 10 minutes. Both teams had put on a sufficiently good show. They could’ve easily chilled out, run the ball a few times, and taken the tie without recourse from the NFL.
That’s not what happened. Instead, they traded field goals, threw a combined 13 times, and seemed determined to win. The Pittsburgh nightmare and internet dream didn’t end until time expired in overtime with the Raiders’ Daniel Carlson nailing a 47-yard field goal to secure a 35–32 win. Raiders and Steelers in. Chargers out.
That the game proved so resistant to a tie reveals two things. One is that intentionally playing for any outcome other than a win is extremely difficult. The other is that football’s ethos makes even an unintentional tie unpalatable, even when rationality should dictate otherwise.
First, the intentional tie scenario. While such a thing isn’t explicitly against the rules, there’s no way Roger Goodell would stand for brazen collusion. If it happened, he could potentially invoke the league’s Rule 17, and specifically its “commissioner authority” clause, which grants him “the sole authority to investigate and take appropriate disciplinary and/or corrective measures if any club action, non-participant interference, or calamity occurs in an NFL game which the Commissioner deems so extraordinarily unfair or outside the accepted tactics encountered in professional football that such action has a major effect on the result of the game.”
I was fine with the game not being rigged for a tie, because I am from Pittsburgh. But those of us not rooting for the tie—including the NFL, Goodell, and the leadership of both teams—are arguably the villains of this story, because we were rooting against chaos. Unaffiliated observers have every reason to be wistful about a missed opportunity for a singularly absurd NFL event. The widely wished-for tie did not fail to occur because it would’ve been unjust. It failed to occur because it was too perfect a concept for the sporting world America has built for itself.
Consider that the NFL has multiple sports gambling partners who ravenously urge fans, during telecasts, to bet on games. In the hypothetical universe of an intentionally tied game, disappointed bettors would be furious with their sportsbooks, who would in turn point the finger at the NFL, causing the league a public relations crisis and maybe a legal one.
Sportsbooks might raise less hell than NBC, the network that just agreed to pay $1.7 billion per year for the league’s Sunday night package, and wouldn’t be stoked about the sporting character of its broadcast inventory being compromised. Sports leagues are not above manufacturing drama at the expense of competitive integrity. The Formula One racing season, just weeks ago, came down to the championship’s governing body doing just that. But an intentional Raiders-Chargers tie would’ve constituted the manufacturing of nondrama for a ticket-buying and ratings-generating audience of millions. The real drama would’ve come in the aftermath, and the NFL does not get paid to air depositions and meetings where teams are fined.
Goodell represents 32 ownership groups, not two, and his purpose is to make them money—including by keeping the game at least somewhat honest. When Goodell suspended Tom Brady a few years ago, he explained it by saying, “The integrity of the game is the most important thing. The integrity of the game is something we will always protect.”
I do not think he was far off from the truth; the NFL makes a lot of money on the premise that every game is a sincere competition. Brady got suspended for four games for allegedly participating in a scheme to slightly reduce the amount of air in some footballs. I don’t know what punishment that outright outcome-rigging would net, but it might be the harshest piece of discipline in the history of NFL justice. Goodell might have even tried to turn the game into a mutual forfeit.
Which brings us to another challenge in pulling off the intentional tie: Hundreds of media outlets had discussed it ad nauseam, putting the nation on high alert. There have been 24 ties in the NFL this century, a rate of just more than one a year and a tiny fraction of a percent of all games. It would’ve looked hilariously suspicious even if the teams hadn’t done something as obvious as hammer the ball into the line of scrimmage 40 times apiece and let the clock run down.
So the Raiders and Chargers were never going to turn the game into a farce from the opening kickoff. The NFL has enough guardrails for it to have never been possible. But that doesn’t explain the outright aggressive play-calling that both teams, particularly the Raiders, displayed in overtime, when an interception (or a blocked field goal) could’ve ended their seasons.
So, what gives? The best explanation is that football culture is not rational.
Both head coaches poured cold water on the idea of an intentional tie, and their lack of interest was believable even before the game unfolded so differently from how logic and game theory would have dictated. I don’t think the Raiders’ interim head coach Rich Bisaccia was serious when he told a reporter asking about playoff scenarios that he’d never passed math and didn’t understand the question. But it’s clear that he was serious when he said that the Raiders’ focus was on putting their “best foot forward.” Given his interim status—Bisaccia took over in Vegas after Jon Gruden got fired midseason—he wasn’t just coaching for a playoff spot but for whatever his next job is in the NFL. And trying to win, even when a tie gets the job done, is seen as a positive trait in NFL circles. It’s also in coaches’ wiring.
That’s why I was surprised to hear Bisaccia say in his postgame press conference that the Raiders considered playing for the tie at the end of overtime. I was not at all surprised to hear that they decided not to go through with it, even though they risked Carlson’s buzzer-beating field goal getting blocked and brought back in the other direction—a scenario that would have ended their season for no good reason.
It wouldn’t quite be accurate to say that the Raiders were never-say-die competitors. They seemed to be drifting toward letting time expire in overtime, but the Chargers’ repeated inability to hold Vegas running back Josh Jacobs to moderate gains made Bisaccia’s decision to win the game easier. (It was a Jacobs burst through the line, after Chargers coach Brandon Staley called timeout in the last minute of overtime, ostensibly to adjust his run defense, that made Carlson’s kick possible.) But it would’ve been even easier to just not do anything, and the Raiders forged on anyway.
The Raiders did actually gain something by winning: They avoided a first-round matchup with the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs. But as quarterback Derek Carr told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game, that wasn’t even the essential thing. Carr said that the Raiders wanted to “make sure that we were the only team moving on after this,” and that he’d texted about it with Aaron Rodgers the morning of the game. On the one hand, Rodgers has a lot of bad ideas. On the other hand, being good enough to play quarterback in the NFL requires a certain degree of outrageous and irrational confidence, and making risky play calls in an attempt to win a game you really don’t need to win is just a natural outflow of that personality trait.
It all adds up to something that works out well for the NFL, even when it is in the process of denying fans an utterly absurd, once-in-a-lifetime outcome like the Raiders and Chargers tying to end Roethlisberger’s career. Cold, capitalist interests made it impossible for the Raiders and Chargers to rig the game from the start. Football’s insularity, irrationality, and admittedly admirable commitment to entertainment made it impossible at the end.